Breaking! Nonhuman Rights Project Is Fighting To Give Loneliest Elephant At The Bronx Zoo Legal “Personhood” & Freedom At A Sanctuary

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The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) announced yesterday that it is filing a petition in New York Supreme Court, Orleans County, for a common law writ of habeas corpus and order to show cause on behalf of Happy, a 47-year-old Asian elephant held alone in captivity at the Bronx Zoo, and the first elephant in the world to demonstrate self-awareness via the mirror self-recognition test.

With support from world-renowned elephant experts, the NhRP is demanding recognition of Happy’s legal personhood and fundamental right to bodily liberty, as well as her transfer to an elephant sanctuary. For the last 12 years, the zoo has housed Happy in a rotating portion of its 1.15-acre exhibit, separated from elephants Patty and Maxine who, in 2002, fatally injured Happy’s longtime elephant companion, Grumpy.

“Our world-class experts say that, like all elephants, Happy is an autonomous being who evolved to walk 20 or more miles a day as a member of a multi-generational large social group,” Steven M. Wise, Founder and President of NhRP said in a statement. “The entirety of the zoo’s elephant exhibit provides far less than even one percent of the space she would roam in a single day in the wild. She doesn’t belong to a social group. Her autonomy is thwarted daily. This has to stop.”

The filing of the suit follows New York courts’ recent embrace of nonhuman legal personhood and rights. In May, New York Court of Appeals Judge Eugene Fahey wrote in a concurring opinion in the NhRP’s chimpanzee rights cases that “the issue whether a nonhuman animal has a fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus is profound and far-reaching. It speaks to our relationship with all life around us. Ultimately, we will not be able to ignore it. While it may be arguable that [a chimpanzee] is not a ‘person,’ there is no doubt that it is not merely a thing.”

In June, New York’s Fourth Judicial Department cited to the NhRP’s case on behalf of chimpanzee Kiko in People v. Graves, writing, “It is common knowledge that personhood can and sometimes does attach to nonhuman entities like corporations or animals.”

Under New York habeas corpus procedure, the NhRP can file suit in any county. The NhRP chose to file in Orleans County (part of the Fourth Department) because the First Department, which oversees the county where the Bronx Zoo is located, “has demonstrated that it is willing to ignore powerful legal arguments and deprive an autonomous being such as Happy of any and all of her rights, just because she is not a human,” said Elizabeth Stein, NhRP staff attorney and New York counsel. Judge Fahey noted in May that the First Department’s “conclusion that a chimpanzee cannot be considered a ‘person’ and is not entitled to habeas relief is in fact based on nothing more than the premise that a chimpanzee is not a member of the human species.”

Happy’s habeas corpus petition is the NhRP’s third on behalf of captive elephants. The NhRP has filed two petitions on behalf of Beulah, Karen, and Minnie, three elephants held in captivity at a Connecticutbased traveling circus called the Commerford Zoo.

As the only civil rights organization in the United States seeking recognition of the personhood and rights of self-aware, autonomous nonhuman animals, the NhRP views its work as part of the broader struggle to uphold and strengthen the fundamental values and principles of justice—such as liberty, autonomy, equality, and fairness—that already help protect vulnerable human beings from abuses of power.

“As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ Happy, other elephants, and other autonomous nonhuman animals are the victims of severe ongoing injustices,” Wise said. “We have a moral duty to recognize these injustices as such and to correct them: not just for the sake of animals like Happy, but also to preserve justice for human beings.”

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